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Conservative Christians will be committed to worship forms that foster ordinate affection toward God

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series

"Defining Conservatism"

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If we truly desire to be governed by and to preserve transcendent ideas about God, then our worship must be regulated by God’s Word. This commitment to the Regulative Principles of Worship solves the question of what we will include in our corporate worship, but it doesn’t necessarily address how we will do it. Conservatives have always recognized that while the Bible clearly prescribes what elements we may include, it does not tell us with the same level of specificity how we should conduct those elements.1 The elements of worship are clear, but the forms they take are less clear. To discern what forms are acceptable, we must consider what the purpose of these God-ordained worship elements are.

Our Lord explained the essence of biblical worship in John 4 when he told the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (v. 24). Essential to God-pleasing worship is expression of appropriate spiritual responses to God’s truth, that is, responses of the affections.

Therefore, conservative Christians will be committed to worship forms that foster ordinate affection toward God. This may seem simple, but unfortunately it is not.

Affections vs. Appetites

Until modern times, Christians have always articulated a distinction between the affections and the appetites. The Apostle Paul distinguished between the splankna (Colossians 3:12) and the koilia (Philippians 3:19). Martin Luther distinguished between spiritual responses and carnal impulses.2 Jonathan Edwards distinguished between the affections and the passions.3 C. S. Lewis recognized the difference between the chest and the belly.4

Affections are spiritual responses to truth, and ordinate affections are those that are appropriate for expression to a holy God. Appetites, or passions, are merely artificially stimulated physical impulses. A conservative Christian will learn to recognize the difference between ordinate affection and appetite and will chose to use only those worship forms that nurture right affection for God.

A Culture of Appetites

Unfortunately, we live in a culture of appetites. Our thirst for immediate gratification has encouraged forms of entertainment designed simply to titillate the senses. Taking advantage of addictions to these forms, commercialistic entrepreneurs have cultivated these art forms and media with the sole purpose of manipulating the impulses to drive consumers to a decision. Essentially this is what pop culture aims at accomplishing. Pop culture is more than expression of rebellion and sex, although that is certainly the form it has taken since the 60s. But pop culture began much earlier, first with Victorian sentimentalism, then with the amusements of Stephen Foster, Tin Pan Alley, and Vaudeville, and later with the entertainments of Broadway, Walt Disney, and Hollywood. In each of these cases the goal for producing art was no longer to express and nurture noble affections, but to amuse and tickle the senses.

But equally as discouraging is the reality that distinction between the affections and appetites has been lost today among most Christians. Without such a distinction church leaders have come to define worship almost exclusively in terms of the passions, since it is far easier to motivate people to action by appealing to their appetites than by patiently nurturing religious affections.

Charles Finney was one of the first to influentially promote targeting the appetites in his religious meetings. Because Finney believed that conversion could be produced by human means,5 he sought to create certain experiences in his services that would drive people to accept the claims of Christianity. In his Revival Lectures, Finney insisted that “there must be excitement sufficient to wake up the dormant moral powers.”6 Iain Murray explains the connection between Finney’s theology of conversion and the means he employed:

If conversion was the result of the sinner’s decision, and if the inducing of that decision was the responsibility of a preacher, assisted by the Holy Spirit, then any measure that would bring the unconverted ‘right up to the point of instant and absolute submission’ had to be good.7

Finney found pop music as the perfect tool for creating such experiences because it was immediate, it stimulated excitement, and people are naturally motivated to action by such impulses. Finney urged those writing and leading music in his meetings to look to the advertisers of the day for inspiration.

Those earliest forms of pop music may seem innocuous to contemporary ears, but that philosophy began a trend to use pop music to create emotional experiences in the Church that continues to this day. Later Revivalists followed Finney’s lead8 and progressively adopted the newest, most exciting forms of pop music in their services in order to create sensual experiences. Homer Rodeheaver, a later Revivalist song leader taught that “Creating the proper atmosphere for the character of the meeting to be held is an important office of the director.”9 He taught song leaders how using certain songs and directing methods could create the right “emotional conditioning.”10

My point here is that the practice of using certain musical forms simply to stimulate the appetites or create an emotional atmosphere is not unique with contemporary churches today. The problem began much earlier and has affected most of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Most believers today evaluate their worship “experience” based on feeling. This takes all kinds of shapes, of course, depending on the particular movement. Some define spiritual experience by “holy laughter” and “slaying in the Spirit.” Others define it by mystical trance. Others as exciting, rousing energy. But most people define true worship by some kind of intense “enthusiasm” or “zeal” or “passion” for God that amounts to little more that stimulation of the appetites. Dabney offers a sober warning that believers should heed in this regard:

Millions of souls are in hell because they were unable to distinguish the elevation of animal feelings from general, genuine religious affections.11

One key factor in the inability to distinguish the two is the worship forms chosen in churches today. Conservative Christians must commit to learning to distinguish between religious affections and physical appetites. They must reject those forms that simply target the appetites and must choose those forms that foster ordinate affection for God.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. “As for the form of the elements, there will be some variations: different prayers will be prayed, different songs sung, different Scriptures read and preached, the components of worship rearranged from time to time, the occasional elements (like the sacraments, oaths, and vows) performed at various chosen times, and the like. There will be, of necessity, some human discretion exercised in these matters. So here, Christian common sense under the direction of general scriptural principles, patterns, and proportions must make a determination.” Ligon Duncan, “Does God Care How We Worship,” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, ed. Ryken(Phillipsburg, PA: P&R, 2003), p. 23. []
  2. See Daniel Reuning, “Luther and Music,” Concordia Theological Journal 48:1 (January, 1984), p. 18. []
  3. “The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same, and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word that in the ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination, but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more over powered, and less in its own command.” Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2001), pp. 26-27. []
  4. “The head rules the belly through the chest.” C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), p. 24. []
  5. “A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means—as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means.” Revivals of Religion (CBN University Press, 1978), p. 4. []
  6. Charles Finney, Revival Lectures, (reprint, Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, n.d.), p. 4. []
  7. Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), p. 246. []
  8. Murray notes, “That Charles G. Finney took a considerable part in the great change which was occurring in protestant America in the 1820s and 1830s, is indisputable.” Revival, p. 255. []
  9. Homer Rodeheaver and Charles B. Ford. Jr., Song Leadership (Winona Lake, IN: Rodeheaver, 1941), p. 8. []
  10. Ibid., p. 30. See also Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal (Carol Stream, IL: Hope, 1989), p. 250. “The two men [Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver] brought a new level of secularism and entertainment to evangelistic crusades with crowd-pleasing and crowd-attracting mannerisms.” []
  11. R. L. Dabney, “A Review of Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church, but Dr. John L. Girardeau,” The Presbyterian Quarterly 3 (July 1889): pp. 462-69. []